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by the NFCC

Air quality risk assessment

Air Quality Cell 

What is an Air Quality Cell?

An Air Quality Cell (AQC) is a multi-agency group of technical experts who assess the risk of harm to the public and the environment arising from airborne pollutants emitted from large fires or chemical releases. Because AQCs are conducted virtually, they can be convened rapidly, usually within two hours, when needed.

Based on its assessment, an AQC aims to provide clear, concise and timely advice to the emergency services managing a significant air quality incident, to help ensure that the public and environment are as well protected as possible during the emergency phase of an incident.

Who participates in an Air Quality Cell?

The core members of an AQC include the appropriate environmental agency, public health organisation, the Meteorological Office (MO) and, whenever possible, a representative of the local authorities or equivalent that are or might be affected by the incident.

Depending on the nature of the incident, other partners, such as the fire and rescue service FRS) responding to the incident, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), site technical experts and others with relevant expertise may be asked to join an AQC.

What information is used by an Air Quality Cell?

To make an assessment, an AQC will use information from a variety of sources including:

  • Chemet
  • The types and amounts of substances involved
  • Advice on fire and rescue service operational activity
  • Any public safeguarding action and advice already implemented
  • Data from static air quality monitoring devices
  • Output of source term models

If more specific technical real time data is required by an AQC, it has a 24/7 response air quality monitoring capability available to it which is detailed below.

Who uses an Air Quality Cell?

An AQC will provide its advice to the best-placed multi-agency group available, which may be the Science and Technical Advice Cell (STAC) of the Strategic Co-ordination Group (SCG), the Tactical Co-ordination Group (TCG), or directly to the incident commander.

The AQC’s advice will be provided verbally to SCGs and TCGs by a representative of the AQC and in written form via AQC Advice Notes.

The public health organisation will also generate advice for use within the health service, to inform public safety statements and to assist GPs and hospital clinicians who may receive casualties at their surgeries or hospitals.

AQCs are likely to use Resilience Direct as the platform for sharing information and outputs between its participating members.

How is an Air Quality Cell activated?

The fire and rescue service notify environmental agencies, using agreed reporting criteria and thresholds, when dealing with a fire, chemical release or explosion that may affect the environment. These notifications are passed to the local team or duty officer. If air pollutants appear to pose a significant risk, they will alert the National Air Quality Technical Advisor (NAQTA) who will give advice and liaise with public health organisations to assess the incident and decide whether an AQC is needed.

Public health organisations may be notified directly by a fire and rescue service or other agency about an incident. The public health organisation may initiate dialogue with the NAQTA.

Air Quality Cell and fire and rescue service mutual interests

The tactics chosen by an incident commander to extinguish or control a fire or chemical release will affect the pollution created by an incident. AQC’s should therefore provide information to the incident commander when developing or updating the incident plan. To assist effectively the AQC may need incident commanders to provide them with information about the incident, including:

  • The type and quantities of materials involved
  • Any monitoring information gathered
  • The tactics used

AQCs will be able to provide incident commanders with information including:

  • Feedback from the AQC on the predicted impacts of the tactics chosen, including any public and environmental safeguarding actions or advice that need to be implemented.
  • Advice regarding the location of field monitoring teams for awareness and safety consideration of who is deployed in the field

Incidents in scope for an Air Quality Cell

The AQC will form for serious incidents where people could be exposed to harmful substances released into the air, such as fires at industrial premises, explosions or chemical releases where there is a significant risk to public health or the environment.

Examples include:

  • Major fire at an oil or fuel depot
  • A release of significant quantities of chemicals following an accident during transportation
  • Explosion at a fireworks factory
  • Large fire at a waste recycling treatment site
  • Offshore incidents, if the smoke plume or chemical release may reach the land

Public health organisations and environmental agencies will also provide information and advice to the incident commander and take their place on appropriate co-ordinating groups if an AQCs is not convened or after it has been stood down.

AQC's will not convene to provide:

  • Advice related to radiological, nuclear and biological contaminants
  • Occupational exposure advice

Beyond the emergency phase of an incident, air quality monitoring responsibility is handed over to the relevant local authority or Recovery Co-ordination Group (RCG).